Last week, jordanburtfootball.com spoke with former Livingston, Cowdenbeath, East Fife and Hill of Beath defender Thomas Courts. Below is a review of Thomas’ career and a look at what the 36-year-old is up to now…
Football is something which has always engrossed Courts. Since an early age,
“When I reflect back on my career, I’ve always had a weird relationship with the game; I would say I am borderline obsessive with football: I have always watched it, wanted to play it, learn about it, understand it; from an early age I was always involved in playing football with older friends and older cousins – I took every opportunity I could to expose myself to the game and I felt that experience forced me to learn my game very quickly, but, I have always been an avid fan of the game and that is something in my adult life that has carried on.”
“Predominately, I played with Lochgelly Albert Colts – I progressed through all the age groups – I even had a chance to join Celtic, when I was younger. I was also training with Dundee United, but, for me, I just decided to play for my home town club; I always felt most comfortable and enjoyed playing and training with friends – I felt really well supported and that I had developed within that environment but then the age groups changed and there wasn’t an option for me, so then I moved to Milton Green, in Dunfermline and then a season later, I went full-time with Livingston.”
Courts was a highly rated player while he was at Almondvale.
“I was an S-Form signing with Livingston, when I was a school boy, all the way through high school. Playing with a boys club, and training with Livingston, it is something I had grown up with and became accustomed too, but, for me, I always felt that I was good enough and worked hard enough to be a full-time footballer at that young age and I took to it very well: I really enjoyed it, that is all I thought about. My first couple of years as a YTS footballer, was hugely successful. I was only a YTS for 6 months before being given a professional contract and within those two years I was voted Youth Team Player of the Year as well as Young Player of the Year the following season. If I am being totally honest, once I had reached that stage and I was approaching 20 or 21, for whatever reason, my development started to slow down and I found myself falling out of love with the game for the first time in my life. This is at a time when Livingston were investing quite heavily and I had been part of the squad that had won the Third Division and Second Division and then up into what is now the Championship. When I left, they had just finished third in the SPL; they were investing wisely, they were bringing in players who were better than me and they were delivering on the objectives the club had set. I still had 18 months on my contract but I decided to approach the club and say “i don’t feel at this point, this is where I want to be” – and I had just came back from a loan spell with Cowdenbeath. I had played 26 games and helped them gain promotion to the Second Division but I didn’t feel I bad been developing at the rate I was used to or playing to the standards I was used too either. I just felt a fresh challenge was needed.”
“I was always one who was known to have been well-thought-of at Livingston: I think they had high hopes for me. I knew the way I was being developed and managed that there were going to be opportunities for me, albeit, fairly limited opportunities. They were being patient with my development as they felt at some point in time I could contribute as a regular first-team player, so, when I made my debut (away to Clyde) in a victory at Broadwood, it was a special moment for me, as a youngster, and I knew if I continued to work hard, and I had the right conversations with the club – so they could manage my expectations – then there would be further opportunities, but, again, the club had aspirations of promotion every year and that brings its own pressure as the manager knows he needs to deliver on that, so, one of the first things that gets compromised is the development of young players and I was, possibly, for the first time in my career, beginning to stagnate a little bit because the club at that moment in time had ambitions of promotion every year while I needed opportunities within the first-team.”
Courts moved to local side Cowdenbeath on loan to try gain further valuable first-team experience.
“Craig Levein had been a coach at Livingston before he got the Cowdenbeath job and he was aware of me. We had a bit of dialogue after Craig McMillan broke his leg – it just felt like the perfect opportunity. Cowdenbeath had a need for a full-back after McMillan got injured; it was my local club as I come from Lochgelly while I was going to get exposure and be tested which gave me a chance to play every single Saturday rather than in the Reserve League. Don’t get me wrong, playing in the Reserves against teams like Celtic and Rangers were great but getting this chance allowed me to test myself in a competitive environment.”
To everyone’s surprise, after leaving Livi in 2002, Courts joined Kelty Hearts rather than staying in the SPL or SFL structures.
“I had a couple of different opportunities – I was meant to sign for Morton, and Hamilton were also interested at the time but, sometimes, you go through a spell where you fall out of love with the game and you need to spend some time out to get your personal life sorted in order for it to be a springboard to consistent performances. At that moment in time, I felt I needed to get my head sorted; I needed to get a career and prioritise that. My best friend Kevin Webster played for Kelty Hearts at that time so I had watched them a couple of times and I didn’t expect to sign a long-term contract with them. I just wanted to play competitive football again on a Saturday, get my personal life sorted and then take stock, but, despite achieving all that, I had really enjoyed my time at Kelty: I felt wanted, I enjoyed being with my team-mates, I enjoyed the environment and I was slowly but surely getting back to the performances I felt was befitting of the ability I had. Football is about enjoyment, but, first and foremost, football is about playing to your capabilities. It si then about playing with players who have the same determination, ambition and commitment levels as yourself; the decision to leave Kelty after winning all the individual Player of the Year awards must have been a bitter pill to swallow as I was crossing the divide, but, I think for me, at that time, there were better players in the Hill of Beath team at that time. I valued my football and still do and at that point in time, I was happy to make such a big decision as I felt they had more players within their squad who matched my ambition.”
Come 2006, Courts had a big decision to make, when he was offered the chance to join East Fife.
“I’ve had a few opportunities when I have been in the juniors to step back up into the senior game and at that point in time, I was in my mid-twenties and I knew who I was as a player and I was beginning to understand who I was as a man. I had a lot of time and respect for Dave Baikie, he was someone I had always had a good relationship with. When he got the manager’s job there, I spoke to him and he put a lot of faith in me too as he made me the East Fife captain that season. I felt that was an opportunity I was ready for, while also dipping my toes back into the senior game. I knew I had the quality to play at that level but it was more to do with if my lifestyle and my off-field activities, in terms of my entrepreneurial aspirations, were aligned to being a professional player again. If I reflect on the Superleague in comparison to the lower levels such as SPFL2, then I see a lot more travelling and even at that point when I was quite entrepreneurial, I found it very difficult to commit to that level of travel. I was working in Glasgow at that time and I was also all over with my business interests; I had actually signed a contract for the following season: I was East Fife’s captain, I had just played 29 times that season, I was really enjoying my football and we had just missed out on promotion but as we got into pre-season my business interests were beginning to take off. I hadn’t planned to leave East Fife, hence the reason I had signed a new contract, but, my activities off-the-field saw me speak to the manager and then I went out on loan to Hill of Beath for a short period of time, before being attracted back to Kelty Hearts for similar reasons as the original exchange – I actually felt that the better players were now with Kelty; they had just been to the Scottish Junior Cup Final and they also had a squad who I viewed as aspirational and very motivated, so that is where I wanted to play my football.”
“If I look at Kelty, I have a strong emotional attachment to the club; East Fife for me, I could’ve established that as well, but, at that time there were external influences such as I was starting to dabble in entrepreneurial activities, I had just became a dad for the second time, plus the fact these factors were testing my ability to play at the top of my game. I felt going back into the juniors that I still had a belonging, I would still be challenged; I felt in terms of ambition and motivation that I was still being competitive, and I was playing in an environment where I was acknowledged and respected. I was also representing my country too; I have been capped, and captained, my country in three separate tournaments. I have been picked on a fourth occasion but I had to miss out as I was injured, so, in terms of experience, exposure and legacy moments, I would like to think I have achieved a lot in the junior game as well.”
Looking at the junior leagues specifically, Courts said:
“It is a different style of game. What I would say with my managerial hat on is that, some of my biggest challenges have been integrating former senior players into the junior game. This isn’t because they’ve misunderstood the quality or there is complacency, it just takes a while to acclimatise and in their minds, they probably feel as if it is going to be easier than it actually is. I am a major advocate and ambassador of the junior game. I am proud to have been a junior player and similarly proud to have been a junior manager. I would pretty much represent the junior game against anyone who had anything detrimental to say about it.”
Speaking more in-depth about his International recognition, the now Kelty Hearts boss explained:
“I have captained the Scotland Junior team in the Isle of Man, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, in three separate tournaments. I was also picked while I was at Hill of Beath but had to pull out. For me, they are phenomenal experiences, for the level we play at: it, effectively, is a way of saying you are a player who consistently performs and then, equally, to have had the opportunity to captain this side three times – winning twice and losing out once – it allows you to learn a lot about yourself on these occasions. You are in a very controlled environment; you are thrust in with a group of unknown individuals so to show off your character in such a short space of time to allow you to prevail, as well as playing well and helping others play to their capabilities before winning something together shows a lot about you as a person and your character. As a neutral, if you were to go along and watch any of these games – they are fiercely competitive, but perhaps slightly lower in quality. In terms of spirit, attitude and endeavour, it isn’t for the faint-hearted: you need to make sure you have the right players available; the right type of character and spirit while it is probably the most extreme environment I have been in during my personal and professional career as it is extremely testing.”
Player/Manager Thomas Courts is in his second spell with Kelty, since re-joining in 2007.
“I’ve always had a love affair with Kelty Hearts; I can recognise with the people as I am a local lad from Lochgelly, I love the community spirit and I have always been slightly frustrated in my time there, even as a player, as I have always known the potential which the club has. I have always felt as if we could have achieved more but for whatever reason, there was always something holding us back. When I got the manager’s job at 32-years-old, it was a massive undertaken as the club hadn’t won a match in 20 attempts – we were in complete disarray, we were spiralling out the league. First and foremost, I was there to just help and work with the players and essentially get us through to the end of the season and preserve our Superleague status.”
“I think before we won our first Superleague title, we underperformed,” explains Courts. “I had probably been a frustrated manager since 18 or 19 years old. I’ve always captained teams – I have always thought of things from a managers point of view. When I got the job, it felt like the right time for me. I felt, personally, it was the right appointment. Those first 6 or 7 months were extremely testing, if I am being honest. The players weren’t in a good place – the Superleague is a ruthless league and because the club hadn’t won in so many games, we were low on confidence: thankfully, for me, I was someone who had always performed well for the club, I had shown high levels of professionalism towards the club, I was very well respected within the dressing room and it wasn’t the greatest Kelty Hearts side of all time, and the league table would tell you that, but, the lads gave me sheer endeavour and thankfully we stayed up, through the play-off system. Those 6 or 7 months, however, gave me a good indication of what was required at the club; the demands and expectations I would like to place upon my players and what identifying the players I felt would b capable of undertaking those expectations and taking the club to a point where it can put itself on a platform to be challenging for silverware.”
Since then, Courts has guided the Fife club to two Superleague titles in three seasons, before the club has – this season – moved a step closer to reaching the SPFL by joining the East of Scotland league.
“Our end result, is to earn the right to be the champions. So, in terms of our preparations, our respect for league, the message we give them, the players we sign…everything, for me, has to be designed in a manner that gives us the right to be competitive and to consider ourselves a potential champion within this league. We are a humble club, we are respectful; we don’t have an inferiority complex over anybody else – we respect the challenge of the other teams, particularly last season’s champions, Lothian Thistle Hutchison Vale, but, we want to earn the right to be up there and everything we do is geared up to allow us to at least attempt that, this season. Going right back to our pre-season programme, we have taken on games against Lowland League opposition as that is sides we might come up against in cup duty this year; already, we have saw ourselves drawn against Spartans and Selkirk (who are both Lowland League teams) – we tried to pre-empt that. What we have found out from the Qualifying Cup is that we have faced two very well organised sides; young, energetic, hungry, talented teams and I think our boys have equipped themselves really well We showed the teams every respect and thankfully we have been able to prevail because of that.”
A massive thanks goes to Thomas for providing me so much of his time to conduct this interview. All the best to Thomas for the future.